An interesting topic was brought up by Mr. Alexander Surikov, the Russian ambassador in Belarus. Mr. Surikov at a press conference in Minsk said: “Is Byelorussia a sovereign state? Yes. Some people say: “Byelorussization has started!” But what else should it be here? Of course Byelorussization. We have those that don’t like it, but I do.” This observation was presented in the Russian media under the title “Russian Ambassador in Byelorussia Has Approved Byelorussization of the Country” (note: Russian officials use “Byelorussia” instead of “Belarus”, in spite of the fact, that it is the official name of the country since 1991).

This incident leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. I can’t say that I think that the Russian ambassadors have the right to express such things publicly. Honestly, this looks like a “blessing” from the Russian side to carry out such a policy. Or a “permission”. Though, it wasn’t given with ease (“We have those that don’t like it…”).

“Permissions” of this type discredit the Belarusian government, which, as we have seen, must “seek” support from abroad. Such an impudent attitude to the “independent” Belarus is completely beyond the pale.

It should be recalled that Ukraine and the EU are constantly denounced in Russia and Belarus because of their “political dependence” on the USA. Russian media particularly enjoys bringing up this topic when discussing Ukraine. At the same time, Russia hypocritically clung to Belarus and controls its every step while the Belarusian rulers somehow sell this picture to the nation as “independence”. It is impossible not to note this dual policy of these two states.

The purpose of this essay is to talk about the Belarusization which Mr. Surikov supports despite his comrades that aren’t so optimistic about it. By the latter, I assume the Russian politicians and various media representatives.

Based on my observations I can say that there are two types of Belarusization in Belarus: “top-down” and “bottom-up” (or just from the “top” and from the “bottom”). The “top-down” approach is executed by the government and the “bottom-up” is pursued by the Belarusians themselves. It is quite easy to guess that the Russian ambassador is talking about the “top-down” approach and in no way about the “bottom” one.

What is actually the “top-down” type of Belarusization? It is a process of popularization of the Belarusian culture, language, etc. on the “state level” that started a couple years ago.

Here, for example, is Mr. Alexander Lukashenko with his son in a t-shirt with a national print:

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Or an ad in Brest:

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“My first word is “love”. What will be your first word in your native language?”

Another example of this type of Belarusization — an ad “I *heart* Belarus!” next to a Cola ad:

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I think, one more faded banner, only now about Brest, was also created by the state to raise patriotic feelings:

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Though, it is not in Belarusian as well as the name of the city on the grass, which is funny, since the “Belarusization” is taking place.

But these two banners should definitely capture the “top-down” approach:

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Take a look at the condition of the road and the sidewalk

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Again: “lovers of Belarus” and a dull HIV ad (in Russian). Apparently, this is the most urgent problem of the country since it “affects even those that are not affected”.

And here is the formidable Belarusian army:

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Though, the army merged in its organizational structure with the Russian and Belarusians are ready to repel an attack from the West as well as to “die for Russia”, as it was recently mentioned by the president of Belarus Mr. Lukashenko. Well, at least the banner is in Belarusian and thanks for that.

And here are the two banners that have closed this circle of idiocy:

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The already familiar faded banner-popularizer of the Belarusian language and a brilliant in its meaninglessness and mediocrity phrase “Together we are Belarus” written in Russian as if it isn’t cynical enough.

This same Belarusization is going on at the same time when there is a statue of Lenin in front of the government building in Minsk and every year the seventh of November communists with red flags gather together to celebrate with the whole country the “October Revolution Day” — the official holiday of modern Belarus. Even a monument to Lenin was opened this year. And this is happening during “Belarusization”.

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Although, some say that it will be possible to take the theory test for the driving license in Belarusian. At least, it’s “in development” and in the meantime, one will have to cope only with the Russian language, despite the fact that Belarus has two state languages.

As the reader might have already guessed, the “top-down” type of Belarusization is a quite controversial process. I mean — does it actually exist? After all, what Belarusization can we talk about when the Belarusian television, media, politicians and the entire public sphere most of the time speaks Russian? The Belarusian language can be found on road sign, street names, memorial plaques, and monuments (and not even always), as well as at railway stations.

Even in social advertising officials cannot keep up with “Belarusization” — most of the ads are in Russian.

Here’s another example, the city of Pinsk is looking for collaboration:

Of course, the video is in Russian — the language that is spoken in Belarus and Russia. No word is spoken in Belarusian (even in subtitles), although the first part of the video could be translated and would perfectly fit as a promotion of the city for domestic tourism and labor migration. Also, nobody is talking about English (the language of business), although the second part of the video would fit for this purpose. Despite the fact that it is in the pragmatic interests of the politicians to make the region business- and investment-friendly, it is an absolute nonsense for the officials to think about translating the video into the languages of the neighbors — Ukrainian, Polish or Lithuanian.

In this same video at the 18th second, a mysterious “Byelorussia” is pronounced, although “Belarus” is written twice on every Belarusian passport. And on the 36th second, when the narrator says “in the heart of Pinsk, near the present Lenin square” you can turn off the video. I think everything is clear — the Russian language, “Byelorussia”, Lenin — the time period is obvious, somewhere before 1991, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On the site of the Pinsk City Executive Committee (or “gorispolkom” — another word from that era, once again showing us where the country is stuck) I found only one post in Belarusian. What’s more, this post is a repost from a third party site, namely — Pinski Vesnik, which, unfortunately, is also almost 100 % in Russian (given the various links to state institutions, including the “Site of the President of the Republic of Belarus”, I assume that this newspaper is state- or near-state-owned rather than an independent media).

I don’t think that we should continue to discuss the scale of the “top-down” type of Belarusization. It is possible that the residences of Minsk are much more affected by it than the inhabitants of the province (in my case the examples are from the Brest Region, I will not speak for other parts of the country). The level of Belarusization of Brest (one of the largest cities in the country) I would rate as “very low”, and it is the most western frontier of the country. Even the monument of Mickiewicz in the center of Brest is in Russian (the Belarusian language uses “i” instead of “и”):

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And regarding the quality of the state-level Belarusization, we can see that the presented examples with the phrases like “together we are Belarus”, “I *heart* Belarus” and “the first word in my native language is “love” are completely trivial and boring. An official would say: looks “youthful” and, what’s more important — without any “vulgarity”.

I cannot blame the Belarusian government in the lack of taste or inability to perform a Belarusization program of high-quality. It’s just the current structure of the government in Belarus that does not encourage originality and innovation. It also has no place for simple coordination, otherwise what can explain the large number of different designs of street signs either in Russian or Belarusian?

The current administration can be compared with any authoritarian state, where decisions depend on one person and are limited by his taste and education. Just as Hitler insisted on the execution of his orders in defiance of all professionals that were well informed, same does the Belarusian government that implements what it thinks is “beautiful”, “interesting” and what “represents” the Belarusian culture.

Let’s give the poor bureaucrats a break, since we made sure that the “top-bottom” type of Belarusization will not lead to anything, except for the attention of Russia, because, as I understand, this process was for the most part aimed at Russia and its administration.

The “bottom” type of Belarusization is much more interesting due to its sincerity and relevance. It has no place for poor design and meaningless slogans simply because it is created by the younger generations of Belarusians for themselves and who have no need to engage in the stillborn bureaucratic widow-dressing.

Let’s start from with the fact that the cornerstone of this type of Belarusization is to speak Belarusian. In certain circles, it is gaining popularity and, as a result, one who constantly speaks Belarusian is at least more inclined to consider himself a Belarusian, rather than a “Soviet person” or a representative of the “brotherly people of the Russians”. Thus, in this way an individual expresses his civic and quite probably his political position (due to the inability to express it at a polling station or a peaceful rally). Due to certain circumstances, there is usually no place for Russia, comrade Lukashenko, Lenin, Dzerzhinsky and other representatives of the USSR in that position. In this case, the Belarusian language is opposed to Russia and the Soviet Union to emphasize the [desire for the] national independence and freedom (as you might guess — from the influence of Russia).

In almost all cases the Belarusian language is spoken by the opposition to the current government and to Russia. They create websites, projects on a variety of topics, many cultural initiatives. I presume that many users of the Belarusian language don’t just want to “speak Belarusian”, they would like such things as the decommunization of the country. For example the return of the original names of the Belarusian cities — not “Ivanava” (since 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland and added Western Belarus to BSSR), but “Janaŭ”, not “Dzyarzhynsk” (since 1932), but “Koydanava”. Not even the Belarusian “Minsk” but “Miensk”, since the spelling and the pronunciation of the second is considered by some to be more linguistically correct.

Wikipedia has even two versions of the Belarusian language — the official (124 thousand articles) and Taraškievica (59 thousand) — the pre-war version of the Belarusian language with fewer Russification. As we can see, the split is quite large — almost a third of all articles in the Belarusian language are written in Taraškievica. Or, to rephrase — the unofficial version of the Belarusian language is half the official.

There are different projects that are only in Belarusian and I think it is a conscious choice and position of their authors. A few examples:

Compare the quality of these initiatives with the work of the public officials — heaven and earth (and keep in mind that the “bottom” type of Belarusization has no state support).

Our “Dialogue” is also considered an example of the “bottom” type of Belarusization — we write in three languages and while it does not simply our lives, it is our personal choice to support the Belarusian language and culture.

However, it would be wrong to present the “bottom” type Belarusization as a massive movement. Yes, there are projects, songs, books and so on. There is an ongoing cultural revival, but all this is in its infancy. There is still a lot of work regarding promotion, popularization, and development. I would advise (even more) “solidarity” to the representatives of this type of Belarusization, namely: cooperation with each other, networking, creating cross-projects and so on. As an example, we invite all representatives of the “bottom” type of Belarusization to say hello.

Despite the fact that the second type of Belarusization is significantly better than what the state offers, this type will never be supported by any Russian ambassador, at least from the current elite. It will not gain any support simply because the “bottom-up” type is a real and sincere movement of a certain part of the country that is skeptical towards Russia and the current Belarusian government.

At the same time, Mr. Lukashenko seeks to depoliticize the Belarusian language and make it not only a language of the “opposition” but also of “the people”. But, fortunately, it will not happen. The means by which the state pursues Belarusization look very bleak and boring. And the “simple people” are too busy with their own problems and are frankly said too inert to start learning Belarusian after seeing some faded ads.

Today, those who study Belarusian do it because of their desire and views that do not coincide with the views of the Belarusian and Russian elites. And those people are not necessarily bloodthirsty Nazis, as they are presented in the Russian media. In most cases, they are ordinary Belarusians that want to explore their roots and connection with their country and culture. What can you do with the fact that there are many Ukrainian and Polish word in the Belarusian language and Russia is not the only country in the world.

While the Belarusian “nationalism” sounds just ridiculous and is directed inwards — towards Belarusization, independence, and cultural renewal, Russian nationalism is just Nazism — extermination of alien races, cultures and the imposition of the one and only “right” culture. One that doesn’t see the difference between the defensive nationalism in Belarus focused on the preservation of the Belarusian culture and language and the aggressive offensive Russian nationalism (or Nazism) that really affects many people and makes many suffer (see various “white wagons”, where a crowd of Russian Nazis beats up immigrants), that person is either ignorant and is unwilling to understand the problem, or is deliberately misleading. Russia somehow does not notice the log in its eye — the society has incorrigible Nazis and nationalists that perceive migrants as “beasts”, and Belarusians and Ukrainians as “Russians”.

The “white wagon” action in the Moscow’s metro this year:


Let’s summarize our findings. The “top-down” approach is harmless. It is aimed at maintaining the status quo with a small addition of the Belarusian language where the local official will be able (or will want / will be smart enough) to do it. That’s all. The signal was sent to certain people and they received it.

Various activities aimed at young people to strengthen patriotism, comradeship, and anything else are just a dreary obligation. Teens will easily dress up in clown costumes with ridiculous symbols and will pass under the slogan “Youth of Russia and Belarus — the Road to the Future of the Union State”. Or will join the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU, the modern Komsomol). However, it has zero sense in it. I don’t even remember my school obligations — they are just boring and uninteresting for the young generation.

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Photo by Roman Scherbenkov

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The style of the BRYU

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A typical obligatory action

Belarusization from the “bottom”, on the contrary, is a sincere desire to understand your history, roots, discover for yourself your culture, nationality. A side effect of this Belarusization is the discovery of the ambiguous position of Russia in the history of Belarus, as well as the realization that the map of Europe consists not only of the “brotherly Russia”, but there are also such neighbors of Belarus like Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and the whole EU.

The latter, incidentally, is helping Belarus even with such things as trash cans. Like any democracy, the EU has respect for Belarus and its language and that is evident by the sticker on the bin, written in Belarusian and English.

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I have to admit, this bin was the most beautiful and interesting thing that was on that street in Brest

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A side effect of the “bottom” type of Belarusization is Mickiewicz, whom the Pushkin himself adored. And whatever is said, but it is more logical to call the university in Brest after Mickiewicz, a man born in Belarus, rather than after Pushkin, who once visited it (even given the fact that Pushkin has roots in Belarus).

A side effect of this Belarusization is the discovery that Belarus has its own flag and coat of arms, in no way related to the USSR. And it is this flag and this coat of arms that Mr. Lukashenko abolished in the 90s, returning the country to the Soviet rails (even Russia has restored its tricolor!).

The most important thing is that Belarusization from the “bottom” is the desire of decisive changes, and not just the desire to speak Belarusian. That’s what the government officials don’t understand simply because the current Belarus is their dreamland — a conserved state of the Soviet times, the state of their childhood, and adolescence.

Their dreamland, but not ours.

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Stefan Vanli

Editor

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Biała Podlaska

Poland